April 17, 2012

Hotel Ezra Cornell shows off students' hospitality skills

SHA students
Jason Koski/University Photography
Hotel students serve "Lunch at Tiffany's" in the Terrace Lounge during the 87th Annual Hotel Ezra Cornell weekend.
panel discussion at Hotel Ezra Cornell
Jason Koski/University Photography
Speakers share their views during the panel discussion, "Mass Customization: Innovating the Customer Experience" during HEC weekend.

Hotel Ezra Cornell (HEC) presents students with challenges all year as they plan every aspect of this hospitality industry conference, from flowers and floor plans to guest speakers. For Katie DeVantier '12, this year's HEC design director, the biggest headache came from a humble tool of the trade: the plate.

Conference attendees traditionally receive a commemorative plate. But with only 8 weeks to go before HEC, the company that had donated the plates for the past several years informed DeVantier it would not be doing so again. "I needed to come up with $5,000 if we wanted plates," she said. After many phone calls and meetings, the students secured a donation. "An overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment rushed through my body as I tore open the first box of plates," she said.

Problem-solving is just one skill students learned at the School of Hotel Administration's 87th annual HEC April 12-15 at the Statler Hotel. HEC's goal is twofold: to offer students the opportunity to practice the skills they have learned in the classroom and to showcase their talents to the industry professionals who attend.

"There is a special energy around Statler Hall during HEC weekend, a mixture of excitement and adrenaline," said Ali Hoyt '12, managing director. "All Hotelies pull together, and there is a great sense of pride in everything that we have accomplished, together. And having 300 guests commend everyone for another fabulous HEC weekend is the icing on the cake."

This year's theme, "Life Is Service Innovation," focused on the guest experience. Danielle Foster '12, communications director, headed up the creation of a mobile website that let guests network and view information to navigate HEC, from the schedule to menus and student profiles. She also created a Flickr slideshow of past attendees reflecting on what HEC means to them. Inspired by feedback from last year's guests, Celia Erickson '12, food and beverage director, changed the Saturday breakfast to room service with fruit and pastries, instead of a traditional buffet.

Many of the presentations touched on the idea of change as well. Industry innovator Ian Schrager launched the weekend with a talk on his new PUBLIC hotels and insight into groundbreaking companies. Raul Leal, president of Virgin Hotels, was among the panelists who discussed how hospitality companies can provide personal guest experiences through "mass customization." Trends in the wine industry, including interest in New World wines, was the focus of a talk by expert Kevin Zraly.

Plates aside, the toughest part of HEC was working with peers -- motivating teams, assigning work and meeting deadlines, several directors said.

"It was strange at first to lead a team of people with whom I worked side by side during previous HECs," Erickson said. But the fact that she came into the position knowing many of her peers allowed her to play to their strengths and lead the team successfully, she said.

The chance to get experience in operations management has made HEC the highlight of her Hotel School education, Erickson said. "Although we may not get a lot of sleep leading up to the weekend, the hard work and dedication really pay off when you see students who are able to say, 'I just hosted some of the top people in the industry and was able to gain their attention and show them my strengths.'"